Use rewards to guide dogs' response to basic commands
April 2011 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA
Dog owners cherish their canine companions for many reasons and interact with them using a variety of styles and training strategies. In turn, some dogs are relatively easy to train, while others present their owners with greater training challenges and frustrating behavioral habits.
In either case, one of the most commonly prescribed and generally beneficial training strategies is one that every owner can, and should, employ with his or her dog on a daily basis. This strategy goes by various names in the dog training and behavior literature: integrated compliance training, the No Free Lunch program, or the Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF) program, for example.
By whatever name you call it, this training program emphasizes the importance of canine compliance to commands within the context of the everyday household routine. Every dog should learn to respond to basic commands in exchange for a variety of rewarding items or activities. Owners should start this program as soon as they bring their young pup or newly adopted adult dog into their home, and should continue following these basic household rules throughout their pet's life.
Begin by compiling a list of reinforcers: things your dog enjoys. These could include tangible items such as bones, toys, treats, balls, or meals. It could also include activities, such as car rides, walks, belly rubs, or interactive play with family members or other dogs. Have each family member contribute to this list by thinking of things they each give to the dog or do with the dog that the dog seems to love.
Your family should then implement the rule that these items or activities are provided to the dog only when she does something for them. For example, each time she approaches you for attention, ask her to sit before praising and reaching out to pet her. Each time you fill her food bowl, ask her to sit before placing it on the floor. The same rule can apply to any of the items on your "reinforcer" list. Before you throw that tennis ball, she must sit. Before you open the car door to let her jump in, she must sit. Before you hook her leash on for a walk, she must sit. You get the idea.
If your dog doesn't already know how to sit, you will need to teach this first. (Many dogs can easily learn this response in exchange for treats.) Even if your dog will sit for treats, keep in mind that she probably will not generalize this skill to new environments (e.g., outside of the kitchen, by the treat jar) or to new people (e.g., your child issuing the command instead of you). This means you should first practice her Sit training in a variety of environments and with other people as "trainers" before expecting her to follow your commands throughout the course of daily activities.
In the same way that a well-adjusted child listens to his or her parents' directives (and hopefully receives positive reinforcement for doing so), a well-behaved pet has learned that she can benefit from following owner's directions. When consistently implemented, this training can enhance your role as leader in your relationship with your pet using positive teaching strategies. Following this NILIF program, in combination with meeting your dog's medical, physical, and social needs, can set you well on the path to a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship with your beloved canine companion.